Saturday, January 23, 2010

Letters From Tom

The friend I mentioned in the last post responded quickly to the article. His replies were interesting, and I post them both in full. Quick background: he was a history major who then went to get an MBA, worked in management in high-tech, and eventually got into mergers and acquisitions stuff. He has lived in Europe more than a few years and is now in China. He is a practicing Catholic, his wife is U-U, they have two sons. He lost his college liberalism a good deal earlier than I did. Just to let you know that the stereotype is sometimes true, he began drifting away from liberalism when he got his first paycheck in which he had worked many hours of overtime - and cleared an additional $4.62.

David,

I not only agree, but relish the thoughts from Nozick.

And would add some simple corollaries. I have had the pleasure and frustration of working with extremely bright people over the years, both at AT&T and at Imagem- my partner and fellow founder, inventor of the technology, is a retired professor with 5 degrees. Through the years a couple of things have struck me. That not only do academics get angry that they aren’t running things, this includes a lot of the Bell Labs guys, but that a lot of the problem lies in definitions. As a recovering operations research junkie, one of the most important lessons I ever learned was problem definition. In many ways, it has been critical to my success. How to correctly define the problem, in most cases when it presents itself as something else, is key to a successful outcome.

In any event, what I have noticed is that they lack a couple of key concepts- the first is that simple understanding of a concept does not mean that you can do it. While this is clear and obvious in the realm of sports and entertainment, it is not obvious in business. And that leads me to the other point. Really successful business executives are rarely, if ever, one trick ponies. They must not only be successful in whatever their entry level occupation is, otherwise they could never be promoted, but eventually, they must shed whatever self styled profession they had and embrace ‘business”. In many cases, the person we promoted was not the “best” in their group, but probably in the top 5. What they had was an ability to not only learn a new skill, but to fully embrace it. Somewhere in middle management, you lose your origin. You begin to hear things like, I started out as an accountant, or I came up through sales. But to be really successful, you have to be able to become a generalist at a minimum, and still be able to master new skills, especially political ones. The others are somewhat obvious, they include finance, legal, HR, etc. You never have to be the best, but, at any one time, one of these areas becomes critical to successful outcome.

Failure at a high level comes in many cases when, under extreme pressure, the executive returns to his roots. In the bullfight, after the bull has been severely wounded, he will pick out a location of the ring and return to it, defend it, and die in it. Its called the carencia. I have seen many otherwise successful people fail because under extreme pressure they attempted to solve the problem by doing what made them initially successful. Cost reduction, layoffs, opening new stores or factories; when overwhelmed they return to what brought them success early on.

Its almost impossible to gauge this kind of talent academically, and, in most cases, it runs counter to it. One of the most intriguing things, to me anyway, is that such people spend a lot of time crafting their persona, whether its science, legal or whatever. A couple of steps up the ladder, you have to shed that skin. If you don’t, you can never become the boss of a greater group. You will always be what you were.

The last point deals with self awareness and intellectual honesty. Most of these types are, in my opinion, neither self aware nor intellectually honest. The reason has to do with understanding performance and pressure, or stress. Many of these people, because they did so well in the classroom (to follow Nozick) that that is the same as ‘the real world”. They don’t make that connection that they could be lousy sales guys, I mean, they read the book and went to sales training classes! And they refuse to believe that some guy with just a Bachelors degree from a third rate university could not only be their boss but actually be critical of them! But numbers don’t lie. These people don’t understand or accept that the sales director has certain highly developed skills and can probably operate under pressure far more effectively than they can. This is when performance differences usually emerge. And what is really frustrating, is that the skill that the sales director has, he developed because he was the social director of his fraternity, learned to win at drinking games and was actually able to pass his courses with a perpetual hangover. This is highly critical to his job performance and success.

The last point is that they don’t value experience and the judgment that comes with it. So, who would you follow into battle, the 30 year veteran or the smartest guy who just graduated from West Point? Where’s the test in that? I would say survival, but they prefer SAT scores.

I’m sure you know who Lanny Davis is, he was one of the top white house lawyers in the Clinton admin. In any event, he was at Yale with Bush. He was one of the only ones on the left who warned everyone about Bush. He had seen him in action. Apparently Bush was the head cheerleader at Yale. According to Davis, he made the post more important than student council president. The story also goes that Bush was able to perform some very unusual feats of memory at his fraternity( ie, memorizing 40 some odd new recruits, name, home town, etc. after hearing them only once, and in order). While everyone on the left was saying how stupid he was, Davis was telling them he wasn’t. He had made a career out of having people underestimate him- and it apparently worked pretty well.

So, in conclusion, sorry to gone like this but its kind of fun, I think that academics hate business because they don’t “recognize”(are either aware of them as skills or give the credence as skills) business skills at a high level and they don’t recognize the lack of skill in themselves.

We got the news about Mass going over to the dark side! I really wish I could be there now to listen to the news reports. Over here its just apologies and finger pointing.

The Brits in particular are enamored with Obama, and they view the idea that Healthcare reform is second only to emancipation. The fact that its in jeopardy is truly appalling to them, and it's all the republicans fault.

Enjoy the show!

Tom

(Following my reply)

I guess one of the important lessons is to watch for guys with hammers- everything looks like a nail. And for those guys who see a screw, well, they just put a notch in it and they’re good to go.

The first thing I used to tell my staff when a new deal came in was not to put a stake in the sand. That way you don’t have to pull it out. Wait, there will always be time to make a judgment call- but that’s not your job. Your job is to analyze, not opine. Second rule has to do with opinions. Don’t be fooled when a senior executive asks your opinion. What they really want is your judgment and analysis. Only 12 people in AT&T had real ‘Opinions”- and they were either on the Board of Directors or the Operations Committee. Everyone else better have charts, graphs and sound logic.

Your situation is different- professional opinions in the medical, scientific and legal professions are critical, but I think the points are still generally valid in a large hierarchy.

Some other time when we are actually speaking I will tell you about "Management By Objective"- or how to get to win/win, or consensus, or everybody agrees, etc. All theories expounded by people who never really had to run anything of any size. Its so obviously wrong, only an academic would think it could work.

Now here is something for you to chew on- its in the “can’t we all agree” school of things- of which I am naturally distrustful. My experience tells me that under most circumstances, and there are some important exceptions, that most of the time when people go in for consensus its because they don’t want to accept responsibility.

A corollary is that there are no wrong answers, all points of view are equally valid. Ergo, consensus is a reflection of the rule, the greatest good for the greatest number.

I go in for the “’1 riot, 1 ranger” rule, and if you need a committee to come to a consensus, get rid of all of them. This is fundamentally different from the “we agreed upon the rules, and the rules were followed” idea- and many times they are confused.

As for Palin, I agree, she has a much better operational resume than any of them. I don’t know if she has the “persona” that is required. It would have been far better for Bush to have been elected before television or radio, he reads much better than he sounds(ie, his speeches, when read, are actually not bad- he’s no Churchill, but then neither is Obama). And to that point, Obama is so obvious in his “speechifying”- I am reminded again, of that line in Blazing Saddles uttered by Slim Pickens to Harvey Korman about the $10 dollar whore and his tongue.

Hope the weather is not quite as cold as it was- its chilly here, very damp, but nothing like New England.

Tom

7 comments:

David said...

Very good piece.

"They must not only be successful in whatever their entry level occupation is, otherwise they could never be promoted, but eventually, they must shed whatever self styled profession they had and embrace ‘business”."

See my post respecting other talents for related thoughts.

"Failure at a high level comes in many cases when, under extreme pressure, the executive returns to his roots"...a classic case of this is the sales executive who, under severe revenue pressure, decides to spend almost all of his time "helping" his sales force to close individual pieces of business. The political analogy is the President/Governor/Mayor who reverts to campaign mode.

The novel "The Caine Mutiny" gives a good fictionalized example of the process: The captain of a destroyer-minesweeper, unable to bear the stress of a position for which he is psychologically unqualified, reverts to the nit-picking behavior that got him his first big promotion.

Simon Kenton said...

"Failure at a high level comes in many cases when, under extreme pressure, the executive returns to his roots"

There was a newly-promoted crew chief on a big sudden fire in Colorado; he had been a sawyer before. When the front everyone had ignored came through and the fire blew up, it ran through very-high-btu oakbrush straight up an extremely steep mountain toward him and his crew. He apparently reverted, and was found where he died, sharpening a chain saw. Many others died that day, and perhaps frozen leadership was part of the fault.

MaxedOutMama said...

A truly fascinating set of musings. Thanks for posting it.

Regarding Tom's comments on health care reform and the Brits, I thought Death booths proposal might cast some light on the overwhelmingly humanitarian spirit engendered by the NHS.

It's all sweetness and light until someone hits the papers, advocating with some relish mass euthanasia of the old people "stinking up the restaurants".

LordSomber said...

"The last point is that they don’t value experience and the judgment that comes with it. So, who would you follow into battle, the 30 year veteran or the smartest guy who just graduated from West Point?"

Excellent post. You put into words a lot of ideas I've been mulling for a long time.
The most frustrating thing is when the higher-ups *do* recognize and correctly "define the problem," but choose the short-term band-aid in order to cover their a$$.
This was at a newspaper, as if it's any surprise.

Joseph said...

And what is really frustrating, is that the skill that the sales director has, he developed because he was the social director of his fraternity, learned to win at drinking games and was actually able to pass his courses with a perpetual hangover.

Strange... That sounds like my characterization of environmentalists.

OTOH, that might explain why many businesses have adopted a "green" agenda.

Wacky Hermit said...

Wonderful post, thanks!

A very brief but interesting "test" to distinguish intellectuals in a crowd is to pass around a note that reads "There are footprints on the ceiling." Streetwise people will recognize it as a prank, giggle and pass it on. Smart people will giggle and pass it on but later will be found surreptitiously stealing glances at the ceiling. Intellectuals will immediately begin scanning the ceiling to find the footprints. Extreme intellectuals may take quite a long time before giving up on finding the footprints.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

WH, welcome back.

I must be an intellectual then, which apparently isn't a good thing.

I recommend terri's blog, Wheat Among Tares on the sidebar to you specifically. It might be a good fit.